Irish ghosts of America: Irish girl at Landmark Tavern, Hell’s Kitchen, New York

The Landmark Tavern in Hell’s Kitchen

Let’s start this ghost story from the horse’s mouth, from one who witnesses it. In 2009, Carliss Pond Retif authored a book called “Sizzle in Hell’s Kitchen” a collection of recipes from New York’s famed working-class Irish district. In it, she quoted a man named Denny Bess, who seems to have been a manager at the Landmark Tavern. Denny said:

A few years ago when I was closing for the night and pulling down the gates at Landmark Tavern, I saw the curtains move. Thought it strange and checked the windows. They were shut tight. Then, I saw a little girl about ten in blonde hair with a white dress rocking back and forth on the threshold. The story had always been that a child died of cholera upstairs in the 1800s and her ghost remained. Never a believer, I made a quick exit, saying, “The kitchen’s closed, but help yourself!” As I hurried down the street, I had to smile, thinking, “It’s true: once you live in Hell’s Kitchen, you never want to leave.”

She’s not just any little girl. You’ll find her all over the web, always as a ghost, and she’s always Irish, sometimes having come here during the potato famine, and she either died of cholera or typhus. She’s supposed to inhabit the third floor.

Here’s what we know. Hells’ Kitchen was a largely Irish neighborhood — in fact, it supposedly got its name from Davy Crockett, who, after a tour of New York’s Five Points, declared, “In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.” The neighborhood was home to a succession of Irish gangs, including the Westies, who reportedly favored the Landmark Tavern, according to author T. J. English, who wrote a book about the gang.

The tavern itself is quite old, having reportedly been opened by Patrick Henry Carley in 1868 as a waterfront bar, catering to dockworkers, and kept the upper floors as his home. I can’t find much on Mr. Carley in the old newspapers — he may be the Patrick H. Carley who was arrested in a shooting in 1874, as reported by the New York Herald. The fight was between two men, Billy Eakins and Cornelius W. Holcomb. Both men were cockfighters, and got into an argument about their birds, which turned into a fistfight, which turned into a gunfight. The even took place “in the liquor saloon of Carley, at No. 541 West 42nd St.” That isn’t the address of the Landmark, but it’s only four blocks away, and it’s not unheard of for a bar owner to have several bars.

A year later, the same Carley was arrested for selling liquor without a license. His address is then given as 533 West 42nd Street.

He’s certainly the Patrick H Carley of a New York Times article from November 20, 1905, telling of a wake following the suicide of Patrick’s son, Edward H., who had flung himself in front of an elevated train clutching a love poem. The poem isn’t detailed in the story, but it is described as saying that “he must part his sweetheart, although their hearts were one.”

Edward actually seemed to have several sweethearts. When Patrick set up his son’s coffin in the bar (here identified as being on 10th Avenue and Forty Sixths Street, rather than the 11th Avenue and Forty Sixth Street location of today’s tavern), two woman showed up, each claiming to be Edward’s wife. Both had proof as well, in the form of marriage certificates.

Patrick seemed less concerned about his son’s bigamy than about his son’s reported suicide. He insisted Edward had been shoved in a fight with another man.

As to a child who died from cholera or typhus? I can find no reference to her, but it could have been a daughter of Patrick. Carley is an Irish enough last name, although it is Scottish in origin, and he owned a pub where he waked his son, which might as well be a scene from an Irish ballad. Both typhus and cholera were hideously common before the development of modern sanitation — a cholera epidemic in Manhattan in 1832 left 3,515 dead, mostly in slums, while a typhus epidemic connected with Irish immigration swept Canada in 1847, killing 20,000, and reached as far as New York, where it was smaller — 147 sickened — but lethal, with an 11 percent mortality rate.

There are other ghosts supposed to still haunt the place: a Confederate soldier, shot in a fight, who bled out in a metal bathtub that is still upstairs, and actor George Raft, who was a product of Hell’s Kitchen and played movie tough guys, and who favored the bar when he came home. But I don’t know if the rebel soldier was Irish or not, and Raft was Jewish, so I will leave those ghosts to historians of ghosts of the Civil War and ghosts of Jewish tough guy movie stars.

We may not attract any interest in life — if there was an Irish girl who died of disease in the bar, she went uncommented on until she started showing up as a ghost. In death, we all get our own historian, if we are clever enough to return from the grave.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.